Debating the Invisibility of the Church

Over on the Theopolis blog we recently started hosting conversations, with several posts engaging with a viewpoint over the course of a month. In our latest conversation, we are discussing the visibility and invisibility of the Church. My response to Peter Leithart’s post on the subject, which opened the conversation, has just been published here.

Perhaps we could think of the visible Church as the building site, and the invisible Church as the completed building. There are various things on any building site which do not belong to the building that is being formed, which must be removed before the project is concluded. There are various other materials that still need to be brought in to complete the building and several currently detached areas of construction that remain to be integrated.

The building is both visible and invisible in the building site. There is probably much that is obscured by scaffolding and hoardings, much that remains to be added to the edifice, some things to be demolished, and a lot of debris and refuse that need to be removed. Nonetheless, we ought to be able to see the building gradually taking shape, recognizing that, while it may be distinct from it temporally and otherwise, the building site is not detached from the completed building.

Read the whole thing here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Church History, Controversies, Guest Post, The Church, Theological, Theopolis. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Debating the Invisibility of the Church

  1. Jon L. says:

    “Sometimes we need to precipitate division out of love for Christ’s flock. ……. However, misplacing the responsibility for establishing the unity of the Church in our hands risks treating all division in the visible Church as negative or contrary to Christ’s wishes, when it might be a necessary means by which Christ establishes his Church against error.”

    In my opinion this idea needs to be further developed in these discussions. — We (I) want so desperately for there to be visible(institutional) unity that we (I) can forget that division is sometimes necessary to combat or bring to light error and those who, theologically and/or practically, deny the gospel. Paul confronting the Galatians and opposing Peter comes to mind. (Hypothetically, if Peter had not repented what would Paul have done?)

    Those of us who seek ‘ecumenism’ too often are unwilling to say to other professing Christians/ churches/denomination: (Gal 1:8,9) “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”

    In short, what is the litmus test for knowing when division is “necessary”? And who gets to say?

    • cal says:

      What would have Paul done? Withdrawn his hand of fellowship, most probably, proclaiming that Peter had joined the Judaizers and were not a part of Christ. Of course, providence provided that the Lord’s 12 and the “born out of time” apostle Paul would find union. Of course, this phenomenon occurred within the context of a Jerusalem church that had, for years and years, practiced communal bonding that their concilliar decision made sense. But that’s another topic.

      The problem, as you highlight, is not only authority, but the reluctance, by many Protestants increasingly from 18th century onwards, to speak of heresy. For Paul, if Peter had rejected him he would’ve cut himself off. That’s not the same thing as what happens with Barnabas, who goes to work on his own from Paul, without losing fellowship.

      Ecumenism, at least, raises the question as to what constitutes fellowship. Many times ecumenism can water down doctrine and the question as to what actually forms the basis of friendship. But this idea that we quarantine people, through forming new divisions, who are Christians but have toxic doctrine is a novelty. Either they’ve cut themselves off, or we’re preventing unity. When Lutherans rejected Union churches throughout Europe, it was because they believed the Reformed to be heretics, not because they were just concerned about window-dressing.

  2. cal says:

    I appreciated your defense of invisibility on a few parts. While I think you’re misreading the invisibility of the church in the Confession, you do hone in on a helpful distinction Klaas Schilder made. He rejects the visibility of the Church because ‘the’ Church is an eschatological reality. Thus, no visible, no invisible. Instead we have churches that are gathering. He’s a great resource for this question.

    Also, I liked your figural reading of divisions within Israel that were God ordained. Of course, the position between you and Leithart is both-and. The division between Israel and Judah was both divinely given, and also a case of sin. Israel’s separation reflected wickedness in God’s people, but the division was a constant source of sin. And as Jeroboam (I think quite correctly) understood, the division would’ve repaired itself if not for his decision to build new cults to counter Jerusalem. God permitted “the sin of Jeroboam”, and it was not lifted until both were destroyed, but it did not excuse Israel for failing to worship rightly. The question different denoms/churches must discern together is who is Judah and who is Israel, repent of rival altars, and ask God to unite the kingdoms, lest both are swept away. God fixes division, but it does not remove the guilt for it. Churches need to be willing to die and hope in the resurrecting power of God to bring life out of the dust.

    I also liked your emphasis on the material circumstances (cars, emphasis on style/aesthetics, etc.) as fueling a commercialization of churches, where it’s about going somewhere you feel good with.

  3. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    Really looking forward to reading these articles. Alastair, it’s pretty striking how often content on your blog speaks very directly to issues that are very important to me personally.

  4. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    Hmmm. None of the articles in the Theopolis Conversation particularly resonated with me. That might partly be because I’m just in a different place. I’m an Episcopal priest, and many of my friends have left TEC for the Roman Church in the last several years. Some friends are still considering. The catholic roots of the Church of England are particularly important to me as an Episcopalian, and with that I also have to make sense of a particularly vivid vocation that the Lord’s given me to be an Episcopal priest serving where I am. My reservations about the Roman Church largely stem from my concern that it’s not actually catholic enough, and that there’s a danger lurking in there of becoming an eye that thinks it doesn’t need the hand (to be fully catholic, that is, and have the mind of Christ without hindrance). Here are some scattered thoughts on the articles, though.

    Alastair, I’m confused by your claim that sometimes the Spirit scatters in order to break up a false unity (I might be melding statements of yours from different occasions in putting it that way). As you more recently put it, Christ divides his Church to establish it against error. As a general idea it sounds plausible enough to me, but as applied to the on-the-ground Church its’ hard to wrap my mind around. Coincidentally, someone asked me this morning about whether the Lord caused different denominations or people caused denominations. I said yes. But then I explained that I thought it was a kind of judgment from the Lord–a handing over to the consequences of our sins, and yet a kind of provision for the Church that releases the gifts of the body where they otherwise might be squelched and scorned. To say what you say, though, and leave it at that, without exploring further the fact that division is in itself undesirable to the Lord, bewilders me. Mainly, it just seems open to separatist tendencies that are just awful, that harm the body of Christ, and hinder the form of Christ in our own souls.

    There’s an epistemological issue involved. I’m curious for people’s thoughts about it. The Lord prays that we would be one (and that we would be completely one, implying the possibility of varying degrees of unity) in order that the world might know that the Father has sent him. Church division undermines the world’s ability to recognize the truth of the Gospel. In that same vein, though maybe even more important for the epistemological issue I’m getting at, St. Paul tells the Colossians to “be united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments” (Col. 2:2-4). Unity itself seem to be a bulwark against error. (Following that, I tend to understand the excesses of the medieval Roman Church, and even modern epistemological crises, as problems stemming from the schism with the East.)

    Carl Trueman raised the practical question of resolving doctrinal disputes. That seems to put the cart before the horse. As far as I can tell, we shouldn’t necessarily solve every doctrinal dispute, even serious ones like those representative of the Reformation, in order to open the door to unity. It seems that we should loosen our grip on our beliefs that haven’t grown in the soil of visible unity, hold tight to those beliefs that have, and then cling to one another in love until the Spirit reveals to us what’s true.

    Otherwise, I basically agree with your argument that “invisibility” shouldn’t be thrown out. Probably the way to go is to emphasize ways of thinking about the Church that make both invisibility and visibility indispensable. I’ve tended to think about it in terms of the sacraments, especially baptism. Contra Littlejohn, I do think every member of the visible Church has the life of God in them, that in the sacrament of Baptism the Christian has died with Jesus, been raised in the Spirit (that is, she’s received the Spirit in a special way), and has been adopted as a Son or Daughter of God in a way frighteningly similar to how Jesus is the Son of God. On one hand, all of this is visible–you see the sacrament performed. Yet there’s more to it than meets the eye. So it is with the Church.

    Also helpfully, Christians sin. The visible manner of their lives fails to reflect the truth of who they are and what the Lord has done for them. Yet for those who continue in faith, the reality of who they are in the Lord will one day be unveiled for all the world–along with the Church’s unity. Sin is bad, though. I’m tempted to think of Church division along these lines. It makes it hard to rest content with “invisible unity” as a palliative to our own sinful failures of charity. In fact, kind of like a divorced couple, it may just be that the invisible unity is exactly the reality that stands in judgment over our particular failures to manifest that unity in our love for one another.

    Let me just add some more personal reflection on the nature of institutional unity and the unity of love (since this comment isn’t long enough yet). When I was in seminary–attending a Methodist seminary–I became convinced I shouldn’t receive the Eucharist from Methodist ministers. But I went to their services on purpose. I would abstain. Then I would to go to a prayer room the divinity school had and pray for some time, basically in agony over the reality of division. It was very painful, but then I also had a sense that I was drawing near to the Lord and moving deeper into his own suffering. Relatedly, I lived with Anglican-non-Episcopalians, a couple belonging to a breakaway group. I also became convinced I shouldn’t receive with them. But then here I was making a home with them. Within my home, my friend and I–who had so much in common, especially theologically–really struggled with conflict. We were quick to take offense. It was easy to be overly suspicious of the others motives. He named it at one point, that it seemed that the institutional divisions in which we participated nevertheless impinged on our own relationship. What a blessing that friendship has been, but it’s also been very, very hard at times. To add a bit more, my spiritual director was an Anglican-non-Episcopal priest. When he came to celebrate the Eucharist at the school, I knelt with arms crossed on my chest and wept as I asked for his blessing.

    The unity of love should not be emphasized over-against institutional unity. They’re deeply entangled with one another. The failure to practically make a life together with our fellow Christians–to make decisions together, to ordain ministers together, to wrestle with the meaning of Scripture together, especially for the problems that confront us today–this failure happens largely at the institutional level and is itself a failure to love. They can’t be so easily separated. It’s true, though, that in the absence of institutional bonds, we need to figure out how to love each other. But if we’ll genuinely do that, it’s going to be hard. To suffer one another patiently without the boon of institutional unity is particularly difficult, but that simply is how we will be conformed to the likeness of Christ. That’s still happening for me in yet other ways. I went to a friend’s re-ordination as a Roman priest. It was so painful for me–especially when my little daughter started crying and saying she wanted to take Communion. But then I offered the pain that I felt to the Lord with special intentions for my friend, asking the Lord to bless his ministry and his family.

    All that’s basically to say, I had some agreements with the articles, but then I think they all had pretty serious problems. I actually don’t mean that the authors haven’t figured things out, whereas I have. Like I said, I think about these things a lot, at the theoretical level as well as the practical, but I still have more questions than answers.

    • cal says:

      I don’t know if you write your thoughts down anywhere, but I’m curious: how do you recognize apostasy (whether at the level of individual or at an episcopal/diocesan level)? I can appreciate your emphasis on sacramental realism (i.e. if you’re baptized, you’re a Christian, and the Spirit is present in a substantial way), but how do you reckon being broken off? Especially when under an unfaithful or anti-Christian bishop (per much of TEC), when do Maximus the Confessor’s words ring true?

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:


        Thanks for your question. I’m sorry I’m just seeing it, and I guess I just hope you come back to this page yourself to come across this attempted answer.

        First, I should say that I don’t know which of Maximus’ words you’re referring to. I’m glad to hear more about that.

        As for apostasy, I guess it’s pretty tricky. Individually, if a person leaves the Church and renounces Jesus but then repents, returns, and proclaims, they wouldn’t be rebaptized. Presumably, the good work that the Lord has done in that person has taken a beating, but it’s still there. I guess I only point that out because my statements about the efficacy of baptism seem to animate your question.

        A diocese is a little trickier. In the case of TEC, I wonder how things might have gone differently if the now-GAFCON bishops had followed their original course and only broken communion with the American bishops that voted in favor of Gene Robinson. Instead, you had church planting efforts being carried out in orthodox dioceses. In essence, I think there were failures of charity on both sides–an unwillingness to embrace and nurture what unity still existed. People have been a bit too quick to try to root out the tares, and they’ve damaged the wheat as well. We’re an impatient people, and we waffle between timidity and rashness. Just look at the exchange that Alastair linked in this post. Doug Wilson’s response to this conversation was absolutely insane, threatening to seek sanctions against Peter Leithart if he didn’t pull down the articles. The Church certainly needs people who will fight manfully for the truth, but that doesn’t mean we can strongarm the Church into holiness or orthodoxy. The separatist impulse is very tempting (one particularly common manifestation of the strongarm approach). But the Church needs witnesses first and foremost. She needs people who are willing to suffer her failings and so bear witness to the risen Christ. The second half of the Church’s history has been marked by attempts to hold the Church together (or just start a newer, better Church) without that kind of witness.

        I would also just add that it’s not my responsibility to discipline a diocese. It’s just out of my hands, however much I might be tempted to pretend that that’s something I could do. (I’m only responsible for the fatherly discipline of about 50 people, and that’s probably more than I can really handle as it is.) So what do you do? Do you go and choose another church from the buffet line? Certainly one that’s orthodox, but maybe also a little more to my taste? I’d start my own church, but it probably wouldn’t be very good.

        It’s the larger unity of the Church that’s responsible for disciplining particular churches–but those mechanisms by which the Body of Christ should keep itself healthy have been struggling for some time. Certainly ever since the east and the west divided–faithful, orthodox, struggling, sinful Christians refusing to love each other and make their life together as the household of the Lord. And so I take it we need witnesses, who are willing to suffer the Church and call her back to herself. Even though the discipline of a diocese might be above my paygrade, witnessing is something I might be able to do–God being my helper.

        Speaking of discipline, may the Lord give you (and all other readers) the loving discipline of a good Father in this Lenten season.



  5. cal says:

    The Maximus quote for your reflection:

    “So then, you alone will be saved, and all others will perish?” the Emperor’s men objected.

    The saint explained, “When the people in Babylon worshipped the golden idol, the Three Holy Youths condemned no one. Their concern was not for the doings of others, but that they themselves should not fall away from piety. When Daniel was cast into the lion’s den, he did not condemn those who, obeying Darius, failed to worship God, but kept in mind his own duty. He preferred to die rather than sin against conscience and transgress God’s law. God forbid that I should judge anyone or say that I alone will be saved! Nevertheless, I would rather die than violate my conscience by betraying the Orthodox faith in any particular.”

    “And what will you do when the Romans unite with the Byzantines? Yesterday two papal legates arrived. Tomorrow is the Lord’s day, and they will partake of the immaculate mysteries with the Patriarch,” they taunted him.

    The godly one replied, “The whole world may enter into communion with the Patriarch, but I will not. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit anathematizes even angels who preach a new Gospel, that is, introduce novel teaching”

    The question is when to sever ties with a wicked leadership that won’t desist from pursuing its own ends. Your concern about ACNA not establishing ties with “orthodox” Episcopalians is interesting, in that I wonder how a conversation would’ve gone about these Episcopalian bishops not breaking communion with their peers over their doctrinal commitments to various theological and social phenomena.

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